The 11 medieval monolithic cave churches of this 13th-century ‘New Jerusalem’ are situated in a mountainous region in the heart of Ethiopia near a traditional village with circular-shaped dwellings. Lalibela is a high place of Ethiopian Christianity, still today a place of pilmigrage and devotion.
In a mountainous region in the heart of Ethiopia, some 645 km from Addis Ababa, Their building is attributed to King Lalibela who set out to construct in the 12th century a ‘New Jerusalem’, after Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the holy Land. Lalibela flourished after the decline of the Aksum Empire.
There are two main groups of churches – to the north of the river Jordan: Biete Medhani Alem (House of the Saviors of the World), Biete Mariam (House of Mary), Biete Maskal (House of the Cross), Biete Denagel (House of Virgins), Biete Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha Mikael); and to the south of the river, Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel), Biete Qeddus Mercoreus (House of St. Mercoreus), Biete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos), Biete Gabriel Raphael (House of Gabriel Raphael), and Biete Lehem (House of Holy Bread). The eleventh church, Biete Ghiorgis (House of St. George), is isolated from the others, but connected by a system of trenches.
The churches were not constructed in a traditional way but rather were hewn from the living rock of monolithic blocks. These blocks were further chiselled out, forming doors, windows, columns, various floors, roofs etc. This gigantic work was further completed with an extensive system of drainage ditches, trenches and ceremonial passages, some with openings to hermit caves and catacombs.
With its five aisles, is believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world, while Biete Ghiorgis has a remarkable cruciform plan. Most were probably used as churches from the outset, but Biete Mercoreos and Biete Gabriel Rafael may formerly have been royal residences. Several of the interiors are decorated with mural paintings.
Near the churches, the village of Lalibela has two storey round houses, constructed of local red stone, and known as the Lasta Tukuls. These exceptional churches have been the focus of pilgrimage for Coptic Christians since the 12th century.
Criterion (i): All the eleven churches represent a unique artistic achievement, in their execution, size and the variety and boldness of their form.
Criterion (ii): The King of Lalibela set out to build a symbol of the holy land, when pilgrimages to it were rendered impossible by the historical situation. In the Church of Biet Golgotha, are replicas of the tomb of Christ, and of Adam, and the crib of the Nativity? The holy city of Lalibela became a substitute for the holy places of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and as such has had considerable influence on Ethiopian Christianity.
Criterion (iii): The whole of Lalibela offers an exceptional testimony to the medieval and post-medieval civilization of Ethiopia, including, next to the eleven churches, the extensive remains of traditional, two story circular village houses with interior staircases and thatched roofs.
Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches – The spectacular churches were carved both inside and out from a single rock some 900 years ago.
Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches – A complex and extensive system of drainage ditches, tunnels and subterranean passageways connects the underground churches, which were carved out of volcanic tuff rock.
Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches – Locals say that some 80,000 to 100,000 people visit the small town every year, many of whom traverse the rocky roads on foot.
Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches – UNESCO declared Lalibela a World Heritage Site in 1978. Five years ago, the international agency erected protective coverings to shield four of the churches from the elements. Experts say they are critical to preserving the integrity of the structures.
Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches – A view of one of the churches from one of the tunnels which link many of the sacred sites.
Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches – A local priest assigned to the House of Emmanuel, one of Lalibela’s churches.